I’ve been watching with interest the conversation back and forth on that Nashville Neighborhoods e-mail list, Twitter, and area blogs on the fairgrounds/Hickory Hollow issue and find myself troubled at many levels. The words fly back and forth, with each side presenting “facts” as to why their argument is valid. Of course what is fact is often in the eye of the beholder, and it’s probably worth acknowledging that the data on the Fairgrounds and Hickory Hollow can be massaged and interpreted to justify both sides of the argument to the point where there will never be a truly objective decision.
This is, as all decisions regarding growth and change ultimately become, a question of values — what one sees as important and what one is willing to write off as insignificant and worthy of casting aside. Some will say the historic and communal value of the fairgrounds isn’t worth the expense and should be cast aside. Others say that this property has helped define us as a city and retains a particular Southern charm that sets us apart from our Northern counterparts and thus is worth the cost of retaining and improving. Some local residents lay the impoverished nature of the community at the feet of the “derelict” fairgrounds property, noting that it is an ugly tract of land that sits empty all the time. Others recognize that zoning in the South Nashville area (what’s known now in the development crowd as Wedgewood Houston) has prioritized industrial development at the expense of residential quality of life, and that the location of low income housing such as the formerly notorious Vine Hill projects (since redone to the improvement of the community) contributed equally to the depressed state of the community. Some see development as the savior that will enhance a community’s standard of living while others are more suspect of corporate interests, seeing how these interests have abandoned community desires and concerns in pursuit of more profit.
Both side have equally valid arguments and equally valid concerns. Ultimately all of us have to wade through the rhetoric and ask ourselves who we trust and what are the values we hold up as dear as we look at the future of our city. Ideally this is what the administration and the Metro Council have to do on behalf of the citizenry, hearing the input of the people and making decisions that balance the competing values. But unfortunately the influence that money has upon the political world sometimes leads to political game playing rather than reasoned conversation about what we value. The games quickly become about power and control rather than trying to balance the varied concerns of the community, a game of winning and losing where innocent and well meaning people get in the way.
Some of those people are my friends and colleagues in the Hickory Hollow area desperate to rebuild their community which has been perceived in decline. The reasons for this perception are many, from sensationalize news reporting that seems to put any crime south of Briley Parkway in Antioch, to demographic changes that put pressures on the Hickory Hollow Mall and led many persons to move to other shopping areas. But regardless of those reasons, it’s pretty clear that the current hub of the community, Hickory Hollow Mall, needs assistance, and thus there are those of us who have looked toward a variety of models to transform that space into a multipurpose facility that combines retail with other function. And thus, a proposal such as the Hickory Hollow redevelopment is a God send, a chance to get some momentum back into place in decline, and to help the private mall owners transform their vision from an old style mall into a more public venue.
That is why the Mayor’s decision to tie the entire Hickory Hollow redevelopment project to the Fairgrounds and the need to find a new Expo Center is so amazingly cynical. It preys on the hopes and dreams of persons throughout South Nashville, both those around the fairgrounds and those in Southeast Nashville at Hickory Hollow. For the folks at Hickory Hollow, it has been clearly defined as an all or nothing proposal — “You want the library . . . then support the Expo Center…” The decision to combine the leases into a single package clearly shows the unwillingness of the administration to offer help to a place in need unless they played along with the mayor’s vision and values regarding the Expo Center. It’s all or nothing — forcing folks who may or may not really have a vision for how this Expo Center thing will work to have to embrace a position that they may or may not fully believe in.
The games go on and on. In the wake of opposition to a proposal by the Health Department to locate a WIC Clinic in the Hickory Hollow Mall, I was asked to facilitate a meeting between the Health Department and community leaders to look at creative alternatives. It was a productive meeting in which we had meaningful conversation regarding the needs of the clinic and the concerns of community leaders, who did not oppose a WIC clinic per se, but believed that it wasn’t the right fit for a retail center like Hickory Hollow. We came to a consensus decision with the Health Department about a location, and believed from all they told us that there was agreement on the part of the city to begin ASAP in building that center. And then the proposal disappeared. Why? Because the administration had already determined that THEY wanted the center at Hickory Hollow in the midst of this larger clinic that they were unwilling to talk about back then, a project they were holding back on releasing to the public until it came closer to reelection time. A group of citizens took time out of their schedules to seriously try to deal with the question of competing values and needs, only to have their elected politician symbolically flip them off and insist that his way was better. That group now forms the basis of Antioch residents opposed to the Hickory Hollow project.
What seems clear to me from the very beginning of this debate is the complete lack of leadership offered in projecting a vision that people could embrace and grab a hold of. From the Mayor’s first letter basically telling the Fair Board that it was time to close things down, there has been an unwillingness to enter into the tough conversation about values, holding firm to a narrative that sees development as a positive force with few negative impacts. When people questioned those decisions there was little ability to create a positive vision beyond the typical “green space . . . improve property values . . . commercial development” and a complete disregard for the concerns raised by fair supporters, flea market vendors, racing fans, and a whole host of others who don’t fit into the mayor’s demographic. Some sensitivity to the value of the fair in the past, the importance of racing in our history, and Nashville identity as a commercial hub in what was for many years an agricultural state, could have gone a long way toward coming up with creative options that both better utilized the existing fair property, and allowed folks to grieve the loss of what was being lost with respect. Instead, the mayor, and scores of other relatively new residents to our city with not much perspective on who we have been and where we have come by, focused on denigrating those concerns as irrelevant and not affordable. And we wonder why folks aren’t happy.
Fairgrounds supporters have likewise not been especially sensitive to the needs of the residents around the fairgrounds. Comments like “…well you knew it was there when you moved there…” are rarely helpful, and likewise discount the valid concerns of these residents. There are indeed changes that could be and should be made to enhance the standard of living in that community — changes that may not necessarily be the “close the thing down” scorched earth approach that has been promoted so far. There are certainly ways to enhance the attractiveness of the property and create proper buffer zones (something that probably should have been included in community zoning plans in the past) and yet still retain parts of the Expo Center that are valuable. But conversations must go much further than simply looking at the fairgrounds, examining current zoning and developing a plan to deal with the heavy industrial development around the community.
There are no easy answers to this. There are thousands of folks who regularly use the fairgrounds and hold a special place in their hearts. There are approximately 6,200 folks who live in the areas surrounding the fairgrounds, including Berry Hill, Chestnut Hill, and Wedgewood Houston (an 18% decline in the past ten years). There are some 70,000 folks living in the formal Antioch (37013) area that surrounds Hickory Hollow (an increase of 32% in the past ten years). All of them have a stake in what happens for their futures depend on it.
What DO we value as a city? What IS important to our future together? Who DO we want to be?
That’s at the core of the battle for South Nashville. And all of us need to do some soul searching to be able to answer those questions.